We import key minerals needed for US defense — that's a security problem

We import key minerals needed for US defense — that's a security problem

America needs a new political discourse on hard-rock mining. Several recent assessments have concluded that meeting America’s growing need for minerals will be impossible without rapid growth in mining. But a high percentage of minerals critical to U.S. manufacturing and the defense industry are imported, and that’s worrisome.

In 1995, the U.S. was dependent on imports for 100 percent of eight minerals. Today, it’s 18 key mineral resources — 14 of which have been deemed “critical” by the Defense Department and the Interior Department. And America is more than 50 percent import-reliant for another 30 minerals.

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Our nation’s import dependence for key minerals and metals has more than doubled over the past two decades. A case in point is rare earth metals, such as dysprosium, lanthanum and cerium, which are critical to building laser-guidance systems for weapons, jet-fighter engines, anti-missile defense systems and smart bombs. Rare earths are also needed for commercial products such as batteries for electric vehicles and other advanced technologies. 

Our import dependence also extends to such minerals as zinc, platinum, cobalt, tin and chromium, which are needed for hundreds of products. 

Yet, some politicians are seeking changes to the General Mining Law, which would have the unintended effect of increasing U.S. dependence on foreign minerals, which is already at a record high. These changes would lessen employment in the mining industry and reduce tax revenue.

One of the changes being considered by Congress would have U.S. mining companies pay even higher federal royalties, pushing royalties in the U.S. beyond the upper limit of the range in effect in other countries, making it much harder for America’s mining companies to do business in international markets.

Also, global demand for minerals over the next 20 years is expected to soar while supplies will become increasingly difficult to obtain. Fortunately, the U.S. has a world-class mineral resource base with an estimated value of $6.2 trillion. Most U.S. mineral resources are located in the West, primarily within federally-managed public lands. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, when it comes to mineral commodities, what is left to be discovered in the U.S. is almost as much as what has already been found.

What needs to be recognized is that the U.S. mining industry is one of the most heavily-regulated industries in the world. More than three-dozen federal environmental laws and regulations govern U.S. mining — in addition to laws at the state and local level. 

Given the implications of increased international competition for minerals, in combination with predictions of scarcity, the time is now to take steps to increase domestic production.

But the outlook for U.S. mining is uncertain. Currently, new mining operations are either restricted or banned on more than half of all federal lands. Most of these areas were withdrawn or restricted from development before comprehensive resource inventories and economic assessments were made.

Moreover, the U.S. has one of the most complex permitting processes in the world for mining projects. It takes seven to 10 years or longer for a company to get a permit to open a new mine in the U.S., whereas in other countries with environmental safeguards equal to our own, permits can generally be obtained in two to three years. 

And it’s not unusual for a mining company to spend years exploring for mineral deposits and then invest hundreds of millions or even billions on the infrastructure needed to produce those materials.  

The strength and future health of the U.S. economy depends on mining. Responding to concerns about one of the most heavily-regulated industries requires more than imposing higher royalties and more regulations. The key to a successful strategy for domestic mining is ensuring that we utilize our nation’s vast mineral reserves.

J. Winston Porter, Ph.D., is a former EPA assistant administrator with national responsibility for Superfund and other waste programs. Currently, he is a national environmental and energy consultant, based in Atlanta.